ACCRA – Chinese fast fashion brand Shein has launched a new Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) fund to which it will dedicate US$50m over the next five years. As part of this, the business will work with the Or Foundation, a US and Ghana-based not-for-profit organisation that works with second-hand clothing retailers and up-cyclers in Accra’s Kantamanto Market in Ghana. Shein will provide funding of US$5m to the Or Foundation over the next three years.
The tie-up between Shein and Or Foundation has raised eyebrows in some quarters. Some believe it is a further example of ‘pay to play’ and that Shein should instead focus on producing less clothing. Others argue that this kind of end of pipe work is vitally important, and if the likes of Shein do not fund it, who will?
We put these and other issues to Liz Ricketts, director of the Or Foundation.
Apparel Insider: How did this agreement with Shien come about and were you in discussion with any other brands and retailers to come on board for this?
Liz Ricketts: We’ve had conversations with several major fashion brands and retailers, both their associated philanthropic arms as well as in some cases their commercial ESG or sustainability departments, but as I said on stage in Copenhagen, Shein was the first company to actually admit that their clothing may end up in Ghana. For us this was the opening to have an honest conversation about what would be useful not only here in Accra but also on a global level in terms of driving policy and setting an example across the industry. Our conversations with Shein have been grounded in their acknowledgement that there are many issues to address across the industry and within their own operations. They haven’t shied away from our tough questions.
I went to Copenhagen specifically to announce this agreement and to invite others to step up. We have yet to hear from other brands but we are hopeful. We would especially like to hear from the brands we most often find on the beaches and in the dumpsites; Nike, Adidas, H&M, Gildan, Marks & Spencer and Next.
Most fast fashion brands are coming to West Africa not with the intention of cleaning up their mess, but with sponsored projects focused on securing the burgeoning consumer market here. That is not what accountability looks like.
Most people or brands approach us with an idea that they want us to help them implement, not with resources to support solutions that we have identified with our community as being necessary on the ground. What is different about our conversation with Shein is that Adam Whinston was humble enough to ask us what we thought the solution was and how they could help. This is not a sponsorship or a commercial agreement. With this Fund they are choosing to trust communities like Kantamanto who have a tangible relationship with fashion’s waste crisis and who have been doing this work since long before Shein was even a company.
Apparel Insider: I understand the partnership will be that you receive US$5m from Shein. For context, how big is this for you guys? And what kind of impact do you think it will enable you to have with your work?
Liz Ricketts: Let us first clarify that this is not a partnership, but an agreement. The agreement with Shein establishes an annual grant from Shein to The Or Foundation of US$5m for the next three years in addition to Shein’s commitment within the overall fund to other organizations predominately throughout the Global South that we will work with Shein to identify and engage.
The significance of this funding cannot be overstated for us, but it’s not anywhere close to the value that Kantamanto Market where we work contributes to the global movement toward circularity, and we call on other brands and governments to step up and pay the bill to Kantamanto Market and other communities around the world that is long overdue. Anyone familiar with the investment going into tools like fibre-to-fibre technology in the Global North knows that it will take a lot more money to really turn things around and build the necessary infrastructure here.
With this grant from Shein, which we hope is just the first step from the broader industry, we aim to transform the lives of hundreds of women currently working in conditions of modern day slavery carrying clothing waste throughout the market, we will collect and recontextualize thousands of tons of textiles that would otherwise end up as waste, we will pilot fibre-to-fibre recycling with second-hand clothing waste in Ghana shifting global paradigms and we will begin work to upfit Kantamanto Market to ensure it has a future as a flagship of the circular economy. To this point we’ve been able to do a lot with a little, and now we hope these resources will exponentially expand our impact.
On a more personal level, Kantamanto retailers and tailors ask us every week if any of the brands have responded and now we can say “yes”, which is a huge relief. The Kantamanto community has waited far longer than they should have for this type of acknowledgement and support, it’s good to know that we can honour the trust they have extended to us for over 6 years.
Apparel Insider: Our understanding is that around 40 per cent of second-hand clothing heading to Accra’s markets are unusable. Is this correct?
Liz Ricketts: While much of what is considered waste is not in good condition, wearability is highly contextual. (For more detail on this we direct you to our Waste Landscape Report that we published in January as part of our work on the Design for Decomposition project with The Biomimicry Institute.) In short, 40 per cent of the average bale opened in Kantamanto Market leaves the market as waste largely for financial reasons because retailers and up-cyclers cannot afford to mend and repair all of the overwhelming amount of garments flowing through the market and because no one wants to buy an item with a tear when there is a similar one without a tear next to it. A shirt may still be wearable, but when there is simply too much clothing it becomes waste. Part of what we do in our No More Fashion Lab for Community Design is figure out what to do with these materials so that they can bring value back for the market and so that they don’t end up in the ocean or on Accra’s beaches or burnt as smoke in the air.
Apparel Insider: I guess the nub of the issue (and what lots of people seem to be saying) is that this kind of seems like an admission of defeat. ie Shein is saying it knows that its business model is part of the problem (eg poor quality clothing flooding second hand markets) but is not prepared to change that model and is instead throwing some money at you guys to try clear up the mess. What is your take on this? Are we now accepting that the best we can hope for is end of pipe solutions? Or can we still press fashion to slow down?
Liz Ricketts: There is too much clothing and we have to continue pushing for an end to business models rooted in excess! And we are doing that as an organisation and hope our colleagues across the movement for sustainable fashion will continue doing the same as well. One of the first things we said to Shein is that our lab in Accra is called the No More Fast Fashion Lab and we aren’t changing its name or interested in participating in greenwashing. But pushing for change isn’t just about token statements or catch phrases. We need to develop new business models that acknowledge the very real challenge of fostering sustainable incomes through sustainable material flows and resource cycles. That’s exactly what this support will help us achieve. We are moving money into the hands of people who have a wealth of good ideas for how to solve fashion’s waste crisis but who have been unable to act on those ideas.
Apparel Insider: On the other hand … all other fast fashion brands are also contributing to this issue and I don’t see them doing anything about it or supporting initiatives on the ground like this. Should more be adopting the Shein approach?
Liz Ricketts: Yes! We are calling for globally accountable EPR policies at the inter-governmental level. This is needed urgently, but the political reality is that this will take years to come into effect in a way that will positively impact frontline communities. We will keep calling for globally accountable EPR but in the meantime we need brands to offer direct support. Who better to pay for cleaning up fashion’s waste crisis than the brands producing the most clothing?
This agreement demonstrates that there is nothing stopping brands from stepping up to offer support and to simply acknowledge that they are causing problems that they themselves don’t have the solution for. That is exactly what Shein has done though the Fund. The approach of the fund is to trust that the organisations and communities closest to the problem are also closest to the solutions. Sadly, that’s a radical idea in this industry.